14 June 2007 Edition
Film review : Emotional drama set against background of Falklands War
This is England
Written and directed by Shane Meadows
I love Shane Meadows. He is one of the few film makers that has consistently told working class stories in a truthful, funny way and recognised the beauty in the people and places he films. He may well be the only one. A Room for Romeo Brass is the most sensitive, startling and downright daft look at young British working class life I’ve ever seen. So he’s good then. And on paper This is England should have been the perfect opportunity for another winner.
The story, of a young, lost boy becoming a skinhead in a grey seaside town during the Falklands war of 1983, has all the ingredients for another sharp look at camouflaged old England. A genuinely emotional drama set against the historical background of a carefully selected bout against a weakened opponent, picked out precisely for reasons of perceived inherent superiority. An away win against a small island far away designed to keep up confidence at home. While at home, nothing much changes – teenagers fall out and hang about in caffs, older lads fall in and get shipped out, and skinheads come around again.
It’s all set up for him. He’s been played in by a perfect through ball that’s taken out the keeper. All he has to do is put it away, side foot it into the net. Ripple the old onion bag. But he’s got far too much time. He starts to think about his options – power, or placement? Left or right? Am I onside, do I look alright? And, at the end of the day Brian, he’s failed to hit the target.
This is England tells the story of Shaun (Shane) Fields (Meadows) a 12 year old boy who lives in an unnamed northern seaside town. Shaun’s father has been killed in the Falklands war and he’s being bullied at school. He’s walking home when he meets a motley crew of skinheads led by the lovely, friendly Woody. They take him in, make him one of their own. They share their food and drink, they buy him clothes. Woody’s even lovelier girl friend Lol, initiates him into the tribe with all the wisdom and the sure hand of the mythic older woman. She shaves his head and makes him stronger. It’s a fairy tale come true. Even Shaun’s Mum comes around and sees there’s no harm in these older boot boys and girls. Shaun even gets a girl friend, alright she’s called Smell, she’s a sort of new romantic and she’s a foot bigger than him, but hey nobody’s perfect. Then just as harmony is established it all starts to go wrong.
In walks trouble, in the shape of deranged fascist skinhead Combo, and what’s worse, his evil hairless Hell’s Angel sidekick Banjo. Although story structure and drama demand the arrival of the villain at this point, unfortunately the film begins to slide. Combo’s insanity escalates, violence grows. A series of stand-offs lead to a vicious climax redeemed by a closing note of hope and reconciliation for Shaun, at least with his own feelings.
There are many positives about This is England, as usual with Meadows, the casting is spot on. Thomas Turgoose as Shaun has a rare and believable blend of vulnerability, lovable energy and reckless physical courage. He is an actor. (He’s also a clinical finisher see You Tube/Soccer AM). As the two bantamweights contesting the three-rounder that starts the film rolling Joe Gilgun (currently charming the nation as Eli Dingle in Brit-soap Emmerdale) as Woody is the older brother we all wished we’d had and Stephen Graham’s Combo is the psycho to be found far too close to all of the parks, estate boozers and chips shops that haunted our childhoods. Andrew Shim and Vicky Mc Clure from Meadows’ usual gang of players are perfect in the roles of Milky – a light skinned black skinhead, and Lol – the real heart and soul of the film. Add in the semi-legend of left-sided midfield drama that is Perry Benson (Going Out, Real Mc Coy and Alan Clarke’s Stars of the Roller Skate Disco) and you have the finest squad gathered on these shores for almost a generation.
When you consider the locations in time and place the odds just seem to get better. The surface glamour of believably faded, line-robbed or handed down second (or third) generation skinhead style is captured against the equally faded and dated estate parades. The shops and chippies and reassuringly steamed-up caffs. It’s beguiling, and Shane gets seduced by it all. He can’t resist the glow of nostalgia or the use of slow-motion fashion sequences cut to groovy music. To get away with this technique you have to use it sparingly, like Meadows own acknowledged hero Martin Scorsese used to do until he lost the plot. By falling in love with the look of the film it feels like he’s lost sight of the story. His love of street-culture and the tribes that bind it, especially skins, are clear. “There were no middle-class skinheads where I came from. Everybody thought the working classes were fucked but we were really proud of being working class.”
This is complicated. Skinheads are not what middle-class sociologists want to believe they are. They are no more a repository of essential working class values and thrifty style, than they are a fertile ground for right-wing recruitment or some melting pot of black and white working class values. Skinhead culture was, and continues to be, a process, a shifting series of relationships between working people and their cultural goods, and evils. Its uniqueness lies is its slippery nature which has consistently eluded bourgeois naming games for almost forty years. In his (understandable) desire to set the story straight Shane uses skinheads to justify his arguments, at times it feels like listening to a lawyer or a politician rather than a dramatist.
Unfortunately This is England feels like it is aimed at (or influenced by) the middle classes. By trying to rationalise and clarify necessarily muddy and treacherous waters it implicitly seeks their approval and adopts their habit of bridge (and ship) building in order to re-establish ownership. The story needed to let go, to follow the characters and let us see and listen to them as they work out their conflicts. Instead it feels more like an essay than a drama. The over reliance on awkward use of expository dialogue suggests the influence of over-zealous production executives or well-meaning script editors.
The film is a game of two halfs and in the second half the characters are reduced to the role of plot devices. Combo and Woody, then Combo and Milky, feel increasingly transparent as they represent the binary oppositions in the director’s over-balanced argument. They seem to reflect the reductive X : King view of working class culture and opposition which always seems to miss the point that in real life X is King, and King is X.
By choosing to use drama to engage with history artists take on a responsibility, to acknowledge that they (and we) are subjective, but still affected by the forces of the world in which we live. The casting of mixed-race actors Stephen Graham and Andrew Shim as the protagonists in This is England’s violent climax expresses the contradictions in being british, being black, being white, being skins, being frightened and being men much more beautifully and truly than all these clumsy words.
Perhaps the key to understanding some of all this was lying under Shane’s nose all along. In the character of Lol he has created a stylish strong woman who touches every strand of the story, a woman who maintains her own independence without feeling the need to threaten anyone else’s, and who doesn’t believe in flags or fairy tales. And I’m sure he knows that.
BY MICK KENNEDY